It was summer time, when almost every Delhi University student looks for an internship opportunity and I was one among the lot. I joined an organisation that was conducting summer workshops at their centre in Gurgaon (now Gurugram). Aside from being in charge of its summer camp activities like dancing, painting and other fun sessions, I was a part of implementing individualised programmes too.
There I first met a 23-year-old man who didn’t talk to me for two weeks. One day I suddenly saw him waving and shouting ‘hi’ to me. I was perplexed; in those two weeks I had been thinking that maybe he just didn’t like me. As time passed, we opened up to each other, participating in the workshop activities together. We always found ways to be beside each other during the sessions.
We had a separate room to ourselves to work in as he was distracted most of the time. We made our own little games, pulled each other’s noses… it was a fun time. Soon our friends at the centre started associating us with each other, and called me his girlfriend.
One morning at the programme, I found he was ignoring me. I was also busy with my assigned work so I was not able to follow up with him until the break. During the break, he came and sat next to me, came closer and suddenly kissed me on the cheek. I was taken aback by this unexpected gesture; I was dumbfounded and haven’t been able to disclose it to anyone since then, until now.
This is the memoir of that time, when I was on the frontier between teenage and young adulthood, and crushes, infatuations and attractions were hot topics among friends. But I could never reveal this incident and the guy to anyone, ever. Because this young man I was in a relationship with had Down’s syndrome, an intellectual disability. It was a romantic relationship that was not ‘normative’. Not normative in the sense of an intellectually disabled person expressing his feelings to a non-disabled girl. Not normative in terms of a disabled person exploring his sexuality in a society where people like him are commonly considered either asexual or hypersexual and are often denied their sexual rights.
That was the first time I had worked with disabled people. The incident had left me confused, challenged the‘normative’ thoughts fed to me over the years in stereotypes. I was hesitant to accept what was coming. I was worried about the reactions of those who were close to me, how society would perceive me, and a lot of unexplained things. A social structure that has been kind to the disabled but not empathetic, where they are the objects of pity and not considered humans by our gracious yet inconsiderate society. With these thoughts, I kept fighting with myself; I was rather confused. It was difficult to break the shackles of ‘normality’.
I decided not to do anything to affect our tender and beautiful relationship. To us the bond had no name. By others around us, it was misinterpreted at many levels. The summer programme ended but our hope didn’t. Hope of still spending time with each other, hope of meeting each other,of sharing things with each other.
We stayed in touch. Even though my studies and college attendance kept me busy, I used to manage to sneak some time out to meet him. Eventually I got busier with my assignments and it became difficult for us to meet. To continue with our conversations, I would send him a ‘good morning’ SMS every day. I would text him about the things that made me happy, sad, or anything that affected me. The days passed and the process continued without my expecting his replies to those messages. To hear his voice, I would often call him and speak to him. One day as I was heading to college I received a message from him,“Gfwyajpds”, to which I didn’t pay special attention since I was used to receiving messages like “Goooodfhdh” or “G” from him. I knew it was his attempt to respond with ‘good morning’ but due to his weak muscle tone and not-so-developed fine motor skills he only managed to type “G”.
While I was busy with college, he was busy setting up his pottery studio, Banana Studio. Our busy schedules kept us away from each other. To the first pottery workshop at the studio,I invited my friends and he was leading the workshop as the trainer. It was a success. While I was wrapping up with help from his mother, he was with my friends, and I heard him say with excitement,“I love you, Masti.” Masti was the name he had given me; he had difficulty in pronouncing my name, Smriti, due to his unclear speech. He was so loud that I blushed.This was the first time he had expressed his affection towards me in front of many people. His mother understood his expression and without any qualms mellowed him down and said, “I am still here!” Expressing himself further, he exclaimed, “Sonu bada ho gaya hai!”(Sonu has grown up!). The day ended with this affirmation of his and a step towards taking charge of his own studio.
When I was pursuing my post-graduate studies in Mumbai, the routine of our conversations broke off. We both tried to keep it up but it couldn’t happen. He had started his own studio and I was busy with my studies. One day in a phone conversation with his parents, I heard the news of his marriage. There was a sudden pause in the conversation. Very unsettled with the news, I tried to bring calmness back into my tone and asked further questions. But I knew I was not alright inside – it was heartbreak for me and I did not have courage to express my love for him.
Today he is still single and still runs Banana Studio. We try to catch up when I am in town, or over the phone. Everyday, he meets new people, makes interesting new things, and still flirts with young women. Yes, he is still single. I later came to know that his parents had been joking with me during that conversation.
Today as I pursue my work in sexuality and disability, the relationship with him always stays at the back of my mind. Somewhere in our normative structures and conventional conversations, all of us as adolescents have had difficulty in expressing affection to someone and in acknowledging relationships.
Photo credit: Will, CC BY 2.0